June 15th, 2010

Are You As Irish as Barack Obama?

You might be one of the millions of American’s who are!

When Barack Obama became nominated as a presidential challenger, much interest arose in his background. Researchers discovered that Mr. Obama’s great, great, great grandfather was born in Eire. Much was already known of his Kenyan ancestry. However, the fact that an African American could have Irish descendants had a profound effect on many people.

It is well known that the Irish flocked to America in droves. Since President Obama’s Irish heritage has come to light, much effort has been made to find the source of his Irish blood.

What about you, might you be of Irish ancestry?

Knowing the origin of your surname can obviously be of immense value when tracing your family history. The surnames popular in Ireland today reflect the wonderfully rich history of the country and the diversity of the people who have settled there.

Ireland was actually one of the first countries to develop a system of hereditary surnames. Up until the eleventh century first names were almost exclusively used for identification purposes in the Emerald Isle. Due to the ever increasing population this method became insufficient and so the Irish surname was born.

It’s very interesting to understand the actual structure of Irish surnames, and it’s not complicated at all. Initially surnames were formed by adding Mac or O’ to the father’s or earlier ancestor’s first name. Thus MacArthur meant son of Arthur or O’ Donovan meant descendant of Donovan. Soon even this method revealed the limitations of using solely given names, and people began to be christened after their trade, or place of residence. For example Mac Nulty meant “son of the Ulsterman”, Ulster being one of Ireland’s four provinces.

The Anglo-Normans also had an effect on Irish surnames. The Normans arrived in the twelfth century and quickly integrated into Irish society. Names such as Fitzgerald, Power and Walsh, all very popular in Ireland today stemmed from the Normans.

English families were integrated into Ireland around the sixteenth century, and they established names like Spenser, Hyde and Browne.

The Scottish arrived next when at the beginning of the seventeenth century the English government encouraged people from Scotland to purchase land in Ireland. In came the Pattersons, the Fergusons, the Kerrs and of course, the Stewarts.

Over the years even native Irish names were anglicised. Prefixes like O’ and Mac were often dropped, so MacGowan for example would become simply Gowan. Because this process occurred over time and assumed different forms in different areas, and often sometimes because of misspelling in official records, the origin of certain surnames has become obscured. An example of this is the name Johnston, which can be spelled Johnstone, Johnson, Johnston, MacEoin (John’s son) MacOwen, and MacKeown.

French Huguenots even added their share of influence to the Irish surname. Escaping from religious persecution the Huguenots settled in areas around Dublin, and names like D’Ollier and Fontaine are courtesy of them. Finally the Germans added their dash of impact and names like Cohen and Greenburg were born.

Knowing the origin of your surname is invaluable in guiding you to the relevant records when searching your family history. It’s an important part of genealogical research that can help you to know if you’re as Irish as Barack Obama!